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  • Writer's pictureScriptorium Team

The Psychology Behind Technical Writing

At first glance, technical writing may seem straightforward, and even easy to do. However, behind the seemingly uncomplicated language and structured design lies a deep understanding of psychology and cognition. Let's delve into the psychology of technical writing to explain why we make certain choices to maximize readers’ comprehension and retention.


Two side of the mind: the left side is analytical and the right side is creative.

According to David A. Sousa, author of How the Brain Learns, our brains take in more information in a day than the largest computer does in a year. How we process that information and remember it for the long term depends on two major questions: 

  • Does this make sense? Can we understand the information on the basis of past experiences?

  • Does this have meaning? Is the information relevant to us? For what purpose should we remember it? (It should be noted that meaning is a deeply personal thing and is influenced by our past experiences.)

Just like running too many programs on a computer can slow it down or even cause it to crash, our brains also have a limited amount of processing power. As Kathryn Whitenton of Nielsen Norman Group explains, when the amount of information coming in exceeds our brain’s ability to handle it, our performance suffers. We may take longer to understand the information, miss important details, or even get overwhelmed and abandon the task.

 

This mental effort required to process information is called cognitive load. Though there’s no way to eliminate cognitive load entirely, minimizing it is vital for comprehension and retention. By adhering to principles of simplicity, coherence, and relevance, technical writers can reduce extraneous cognitive load, allowing readers to focus on understanding core concepts and absorbing essential information.

 

Let’s break down some of the specific choices we make in technical documentation to minimize cognitive load and maximize readability.


Technical Writing Layout


When individuals consult technical documents, they require information quickly. Technical documents often include a table of contents, detailed subheadings, and photos and graphs that relay information at a glance. Technical documents are not often read front to back but in sections. By using the layout elements below, we can present relevant information to the reader using step-by-step processes and short paragraphs to keep them engaged.


Table of contents

Often, hard copy technical manuals use a colour coordination system along with a table of contents, allowing the reader to reach the section they require as the colour catches their attention. With online layouts, a table of contents can consist of hyperlinks that take the reader directly to the information they require. Through online clicks, we engage the reader, helping establish a quick connection without overwhelming them with unnecessary information.


Subheadings

Readers often use subheadings as a filter when searching for information. Knowing this, writers use subheadings strategically, providing a summary of the information in the following paragraphs. Though a reader will glance at the information below the subheadings, they often rely on the details within the subheadings to get their information.


Technical writing is strategic and serves a purpose.

White space

A standard in all technical documents is the use of white space. White space is created by using consistent indentation of paragraphs or paragraph alignment (left, right, or justified). White space is also created when using, at a maximum, a three-column rule per page. When paragraphs are presented with consistent space surrounding it, the information does not overwhelm the reader.


Photographs and diagrams

Providing a photograph or a diagram to accompany the text highlights the focus of the paragraph. The image often refers to specific areas that a reader should be acquainted with. Writers use this technique to keep things concise—there’s no need to add additional information to these areas as the accompanying paragraph/sentence/step will provide the details.


Technical Writing Writing Style & Format


Technical documents aim to create consistency and ease of use by distilling information using plain language, steps, bullet points, tables, flowcharts, and graphs. The following formatting techniques draw the reader's attention, providing them with data at an instant.


Plain language

Plain language is using words that are familiar to your audience. It’s choosing specific words to relay your meaning, and omitting adverbs or adjectives that don’t enhance the goal of a sentence. Technical documents are always oriented toward a specific task, and the goal is to ensure the reader is getting the information they need to fulfill the task—it’s not about overwhelming them with details that aren’t required for their profession.


Steps

Steps are always used when a specific process must be followed. Steps are often verb forward, moving the reader into action. As with bullet points and tables, steps are designed without jargon, allowing the reader to move straight into the process without additional—and irrelevant—information that could cloud their judgment.


Bullet points and tables

When the information within a paragraph is dense, writers should consider using bullet points or a table to lessen the reader’s cognitive load. While bullet points allow the writer to relay more depth of information, a table can provide multiple scenarios that a reader can skim to gather the details relevant to them.


Flowcharts and graphs

Writers use flow charts and graphs to showcase complex processes. These images allow the reader to skim the information, gathering what needs to occur to solve an issue (flowchart) or receive data to make a decision (graph). Flowcharts and graphs naturally grab a reader’s attention, specifically if the colours used within are coordinated to specific topics/fields/professions.


Definitions

Often, multiple levels of users refer to a document. To address a wider audience, technical writers include definitions of words or of concepts as links within the paragraph, automatically moving the audience to glossaries (usually located at the back of a document) or to specific subheadings with the particular details they require. Concepts are elaborated on when new employees review a document or when seasoned employees need a refresher. At times, the process will be linked within the definition, allowing the user to move quickly to the step-by-step process.


Notes and warning labels

Notes and warning labels are strategically placed within a document when a particular safety issue can occur. At times, the only information a reader will gain from a technical document is through the use of these labels. By using graphics with plain language, and colour, the reader’s eyes are automatically drawn toward the information, gathering important information they need before delving into a task.


Short sentences and paragraphs

Short sentences and paragraphs work in a similar way to plain language. Writers want to ensure that they have the reader’s attention and design sentences and paragraphs in short length to maintain it.


Technical documentation is about respecting how the human mind works. Organizations have documentation so readers will not be overwhelmed with memorizing multiple tasks. Technical readers are busy—they’re subject matter experts in their fields. They access documentation when there’s an emergency, when there’s a new process, or when they’re new to a position. As technical writers, when we work together with a client to address their documentation needs, we learn about their technical readers to achieve ways to reach them in their busiest moments.


 

Need help with creating documentation for your workplace? Contact Scriptorium and our team of technical writers can help you create effective and efficient documentation.



References

 

  • Sousa, D. A. (2022). How the brain learns (6th ed.). Corwin Press.


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